2015 has been a rough year for America’s Classical Music. Irreplaceable, individual giants that have shaped the music with few peers such as the great Clark Terry and as of June 11, 2015 the enigmatic icon, Ornette Coleman, left the earth plane.
Coleman’s innovations to jazz cannot be understated, even from him more “conventional” debut recordings for Contemporary Something Else! The Music of Ornette Coleman (1958) and Tomorrow Is The Question (1959) something new was afoot. Born in Forth Worth, Texas on March 9, 1930, the saxophonist played in R&B and bebop ensembles, and fronting his own band, The Jam Jivers. His playing was considered so unorthodox that after a gig in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1949, he was assaulted. Despite charges from musicians ranging from Miles Davis to Charles Mingus that he could not play the horn, and his concept was musical anarchy, Coleman’s intentionally sharp alto playing was always filled with melody and a sense of the blues. Ron Carter remarked in an interview once, that after hearing the groundbreaking recording on Atlantic The Shape of Jazz To Come (1959) he didn’t understand the fury because he heard walking bass from Charlie Haden, and swing based patterns from Billy Higgins, so it was fairly “inside” to his ear. In retrospect Carter is correct because, tethering the unusual harmonies in the saxophonist’s music were walking bass and swinging rhythms, that as open as they were, provided grounding for the tonally varied soloing of Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry. Also, without a piano involved, it really freed up the music, to showcase the unique concept of harmolodics.
Journalist Mark Stryker was given a detailed explanation of harmolodics during a very rare private lesson from Coleman following an interview
“In the harmolodic system, Coleman completely deconstructs normal Western musical syntax. All instruments are treated as if they are tuned in C. All instruments can read from the same part without transposing and still produce what Coleman calls a “unison.” Improvisers are allowed to play in any key or any clef at any time. He first had me play the notes A, C, D and E-flat, because in harmolodics these are considered a unison.” Coleman further explained: ““You can play sharp in tune and you can play flat in tune,” which is something definitely heard in the playing of his colleague, the late alto saxophonist Jackie McLean who began employing Coleman’s concepts as early as 1960 on the tune “Quadrangle” from Jackie’s Bag (Blue Note) and McLean featured Coleman (on trumpet!) heavily on Old And New Gospel (Blue Note, 1967).
Coleman is probably most known in music for the genre defining Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1960) an astonishing thirty seven minute double quartet improvisation. Like the Jackson Pollack painting on the album cover, the improvisation with many collective voices soloing at once seems chaotic but it is controlled. The sections of improvisation are framed by a frenetic dovetail unison melody, and interludes between the solos. Perhaps in a sense the title Free Jazz is a misnomer because it does not mean music without a form, it is just free of a conventional structure such as a 32 bar AABA form, or “rhythm changes” to be more specific. In the 1970’s Coleman would again lend his unmistakeable voice to career highlight albums such as the orchestral Skies of America (Columbia, 1972) and adding funk to his arsenal with the ensemble Prime Time.
Ornette Coleman’s music is truly one of a kind and will be sorely missed. His harmolodic concept has left a lasting impact, and players such as trumpeter Enrico Rava and guitarist Pat Metheny have been two of the most noteworthy to have a complete understanding of his grammar and syntax. Beauty Is A Rare Thing indeed, and thank you for the decades of wonderful music.